06.12.2013 0

Is privacy an illusion?

By Robert Romano

So how deep does the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden really go?

Are they downloading every email and phone call out there? Just communications to and from foreign targets? The American people are rightly wondering just how far this all goes. Is the government lying about the scope of its spying?

On May 1 on CNN’s Out Front with Erin Burnett, Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent suggested that the government could listen in, after the fact, to telephone conversations between Katherine Russell, widow of the deceased Boston terrorist bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and her late husband.

“[T]here is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation,” he said, adding, “welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”

Now Clemente’s claims have resurfaced in light of the blossoming NSA surveillance scandal, as they call into question government assurances that phone record data being gathered only includes the time, location, and duration of calls made. But not conversations.

So, what gives? Is Clemente right and the government can get anything it wants?

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller, former NSA official William Binney, also a whistleblower who has spoken against the government’s surveillance programs, has provided some additional insight into how specifically Tsarnaev’s conversations might have been recorded, but not others.

“The former FBI agent, Tim Clemente, says they can get access to the content of any audio, any phone call. He says that there are no digital communications that are safe or secure. So that means that they were tapping into the databases that NSA has. For the recorded audio, and for the textual materials like emails and phone,” Binney summarized.

Yet, Binney does not agree they are actually getting everything: “I don’t think they’re recording all of it; there are about 3 billion phone calls made within the USA every day. And then around the world, there are something like 10 billion a day.”

But, there is a “target list, which is somewhere on the order of 500,000 to a million people,” Binney explained. “They look through these phone numbers and they target those and that’s what they record.”

So how would Tsarnaev have wound up on the target list? “Because the Russians gave a warning for him as a target. Once you’re on a list, they start recording everything.”

Which might mean that, at least, the agency is not recording every single phone call.

But not so fast. Binney is admittedly speculating about what might be occurring, since he has not been with the NSA since 2001 when he resigned in protest of the government’s then nascent surveillance programs. Who knows what the agency’s been up to in the last 12 years?

Perhaps for him it’s simply a question of storage. “Any kind of textual material is relatively easy to get. The audio is a little more difficult,” Binney explained. “They can do textual processing at a rate of about 10 gigabits a second. What that means is about a million and a quarter 1,000-character emails a second.” That translates into 108 billion emails, texts, and other chats a day.

As for phone calls, Binney noted that there are transcription issues with the audio, but what about closed captioning? For example, the Hamilton CapTel phone provides closed captioning text services for the hearing impaired. Couldn’t they just apply the same technology to the phone calls, too? Perhaps they have already solved that problem.

On emails and other text data, including financial transactions, there can be little doubt Snowden is alleging in his UK Guardian interview it’s all being downloaded: “the NSA specifically, targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time.”

Leaving no ambiguity, Snowden alleged how it could then be applied retroactively: “then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

How can the agency “go back in time” if all the information was not already collected and recorded? Here, Snowden is clearly contradicting government claims that U.S. citizen data is somehow being secured.

Then there’s the curious case of actor Shia Labeouf, who on the Tonight Show in 2008 promoting his spy thriller, Eagle Eye, stated an FBI consultant on the film had shared a recorded conversation the actor had been involved with from two years prior.

The actor said: “I remember talking to an FBI consultant telling me that they can use your AT&T microphone to get the stuff going on in your house. Or that they can use OnStar to shut your car down. He told me that 1 in 5 calls which you make are recorded and logged. I laughed at him. But then he played back a phone conversation I had had two years prior about joining the movie.”

Now, perhaps Labeouf was just trying to promote the movie to add some realism. But, then again, maybe not. At the time, everyone could write it off as a Hollywood goof. Now, it sounds much more credible.

In a separate interview with Democracy Now, Binney stuck to his analysis that only targeted individuals’ calls were being recorded, spoke on the Labeouf incident: “I would assume that they — they, for whatever reason — I’m not sure, I didn’t see that movie, but he may have been saying things that were objectionable to the administration, and so they put him on the target list for monitoring.”

Although, if Labeouf has any strong political views, one way or another, they are not really public knowledge. Even if Labeouf did, Binney is suggesting that being a political dissident or questioning the surveillance state could be a one-way ticket to being targeted. That’s outrageous.

Labeouf is just an actor. What threat does he pose? If true, this would prove they’re targeting the wrong people on U.S. soil. It would show you can be monitored even if you’re not committing any crimes., as has not been prosecuted for being a terrorist or anything like that. So why would he have been on a target list?

There appear only a few possibilities of how a government agent, if true, might have a recorded call of Labeouf’s: 1) they’re recording everything, even the innocuous; 2) the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court actually issued a warrant on Labeouf to be monitored, indicating these warrants are merely rubberstamped; or 3) the agencies can monitor and record whomever they please without any warrants.

None of those are good. Labeouf should be called to testify under oath in front of Congress. His claims may be one of the few examples known publicly of how such a surveillance system could in fact be abused.

Labeouf’s appearance before Congress could wind up being the most important role he will play in his entire life. But to truly get to the bottom of the abuses involved here, more people will need to come forward with what they know, too.

Robert Romano is the Senior Editor of Americans for Limited Government.

Copyright © 2008-2022 Americans for Limited Government